Pruning the Dead Away
May 18, 2003
Today’s gospel is not about plants. It’s about people. It is not about vines. It’s about life. The image of the vine and the branches which Jesus uses in this gospel is a way of saying that we as branches will share in Christ’s very life, the life of the vine. If we abide in him, we will have life to the fullest. Now this is a very positive and exciting image, and yet there is one line in today’s gospel that can stop us short and perhaps even frighten us. The line is this: “The branches that bear fruit my father will prune so that they bear more fruit.” That line tells us that we who are disciples of Christ must expect to be pruned by God, that something which belongs to us might indeed be cut off or taken away. This can frighten us, because as much as we want life, as much as we desire to abide in Christ, we do not want to lose anything that belongs to us. We do not want something which is ours to be cut off. Yet, it is central to the teaching of Jesus that this kind of pruning is at times necessary.
This is one of the earliest lessons that I learned in ministry. One day while I was a deacon in Akron, a man came in to talk to me in great distress. He said, “My wife is divorcing me.” I expressed my regrets and then asked him, “Did you see this coming?” “Oh yes,” he said, “We’ve been living in a loveless marriage for at least ten years. We argue all the time and hardly ever talk about anything of substance. I can’t remember the last time that we made love. A while back I wanted to go to a counselor but my wife refused. In time, I too lost the will even to try.” “Why did you stay together?” I asked. “It was for the kids, of course. We wanted to keep our family together. But now they are off to college, and my wife says that there is not anything left in our relationship.” “Do you disagree with her?” I asked. “Not really,” he responded. “But”—and here is the line that I will always remember—“All my life,” he said, “ I dreamed of a perfect marriage. I dreamed of someone who would share their life with me for as long as I lived. I wanted a relationship around which we could build a family. It is so difficult to let that dream die.”
This man’s words rang true the first time that I heard them and they still ring true today. We hope for the best in our lives. We make big plans. But when those plans fail and there is nothing that we can do to prevent it, it is still difficult to let those dreams die. This man had been living without love for over a decade. He argued constantly. His wife left him and now divorced him. His marriage was over. And yet it was still difficult for him to let go of the dream of the good marriage he desired. Yet if his life was going to continue, if his life was to have a future, he would need to face the truth and let God prune that dream away.
This is one of many examples which tell us that at times we need to face the hard truth and let something in our life end. As difficult as it might be, at times we need to face what is real and move forward. Are there areas in your life that are dead and need to be removed? Do you find yourself in a manipulative or abusive relationship, and yet want to hold onto the dream that this relationship is good and gives you joy? Do you find yourself addicted to alcohol, or drugs, or pornography, and yet say to yourself, “My life is healthy, there is nothing that needs to change”? Do you find yourself in a dead-end job or circumstance, and yet continue to hold onto the belief that your life is just as it should be? Do you find yourself surrounded with self-pity over someone or something that you have lost, and refuse to let go of the dream that you want things to be as they once were—that you don’t want things to change?
Dreams not only inspire us, they can at times hurt us. Dead branches in our life not only hinder us, they can at times kill us. That is why, when there is nothing else we can do, we need to let go and let God remove what is dead from our lives. To do anything less would be living a lie. But the good news is this. Letting go, as difficult as it is, is not meant to cause pain, but to foster life. Cutting off what is dead is not cruelty, but an act of a loving God who removes barren branches so that other parts of our life can thrive. Jesus promises us life and joy in its fullness, and he is serious about what he says. We must believe him. If we want joy, we need to trust him. If we want life, we need to let him take what is dead in our lives and prune it away.
The Life Within Us
May 14, 2006
Shallow relationships enslave us. Deep relationships set us free. When we are dependent on another person in an artificial or extrinsic way, the relationship we have with that person is limited and often problematic.
A motorist with very poor eyesight was frightened to discover that he had just driven into a dense fog. He began desperately to stay within seeing range of the taillights of the car that was in front of him, trusting he could thereby find his way through the danger. While he was squinting and worrying and staying close so that he could direct his car, the car in front of him came to a sudden stop and the two cars collided. The person who was in the front car walked back and tapped on the man’s window. “What did you think you were doing?” he said. The man, who had been following, didn’t answer the question but posed his own: “Why did you stop so suddenly without warning?” “I had to,” said the first driver, “I just pulled the car into my garage.”
When we are connected to a person in an artificial way, when we depend on someone without knowing where they are going or what their intentions are, the relationship with that person is limited and often problematic. We do not relate in this way to Christ. Through our Baptism, Christ has given us a share of his very life. In today’s Gospel he says that our life and his life are united as a branch is united to the vine. The life of Christ within us allows us to know God’s will. The life of Christ within us allows us to discern the direction of our lives. We are not connected to Christ simply by knowing his teaching. We share his very life. To discern God’s will, we do not have to follow Christ slavishly as a motorist follows the taillights in a fog. The very life of Christ within us gives us direction in facing challenges of life. Our connection to Christ is deep enough to give us the freedom to live.
Having that freedom is very important, because life can take sudden turns and force us to face issues which we never expected to address. You may have intended to live your life in faithful love with a marriage partner but then you must deal with divorce. The pattern which you intended to live is no longer relevant. You now must find a new way of moving forward. The life of Christ within you can show the way. You might be a person who is always taking care of your health, exercising, watching what you eat. Then you find yourself facing a disease that will radically change your life style. Your old pattern of living no longer applies. You must find a new way forward. The life of Christ within you can show the way. You may have expected that your children would grow up basing their lives upon the values and wisdom with which you raised them. Then you must admit that you are disappointed with their decisions, that you are hurt by their choices. The relationship that you expected to share with them is no longer viable. You must find a new way of relating. The life of Christ within you can show the way.
Our deepest relationships give us the freedom to negotiate the twists and turns of life. This is something we should recognize on this Mother’s Day weekend because hopefully our relationship with our parents is one of those deep relationships. At their best, our parents did more for us than simply give us rules by which to live. They instilled in us values and a vision that was deep enough to provide the flexibility to adapt to the changes that life throws at us.
Our relationship with Christ is our deepest relationship. That depth gives us freedom. Christ gives us more than his teaching. He gives us more than his commandments. He gives us himself. He lives within us and that life within us is deep enough to negotiate the challenges of life. The life of Christ within us gives us the freedom to remain faithful. The life of Christ within us gives us the freedom to live.
Goodness Is Its Own Reward
May 10, 2009
Why should we be good? Why should we tell the truth? Why should we serve others? Why should we work and sacrifice to build a more just world? One typical way of answering this question is to say that Christ commanded these things. Therefore, when we die and stand before God not following these commandments will deny us eternal life. I once heard a preacher even say that if there was no life after death, if we did not some day have to stand before God, then we might as well just live our lives as we please. We might as well cheat and steal and manipulate others for our own advancement and pleasure. Because if we do not have to give an accounting before God, then everything is up for grabs and there really is no good reason why we should be good.
Now I believe in life after death and I believe that we will be asked to give an accounting for the lives we have lived, but to make that final judgment the only reason that we should live good lives is in my opinion, incomplete and misleading. We should live good lives because that is the best way to live. Goodness is its own reward. Now today’s gospel pushes us in this direction. Jesus says, “I am the vine and you are the branches.” This means that the very life of Christ flows within us. And that life flows today as we live and as we breathe. And if that is the case then the deepest truth, the most profound joy, the ultimate success is to let that life of Christ that is within us grow and to shape our own lives according to Christ’s life. Now it is true that Christ commands us to serve one another, to forgive our enemies, to live in generosity and integrity. But Christ does not make these commands so as to provide some test for a future day. He commands us to live this way because he knows that this is the most deep and satisfying way to live. We are called to love one another not because Christ commanded it. Christ commanded it because the deepest way to live is by loving one another.
On this Mother’s Day weekend we might look to mothers as an example of this truth. Why do mother’s love their children? Why do they get up early in the morning to prepare their kids for school? Why are they willing to put aside their own agenda and schedule for the sake of their children? Why do they never tire of trying to think of ways to help their children grow to be more successful, to be more happy? I suppose we could answer that question by saying that mothers are seeking an eternal reward in heaven. And I do believe that mothers who love their children will receive an eternal reward in heaven. But I do not think that the average mother lays down her life day after day for her family for some eternal reward. I think mothers love their families because they know that there is no greater calling than to pass on life to another and to watch that life grow.
So every time we live our lives in generosity and service, we are allowing the very life of Christ to grow within us and we believe that God abides in our hearts. This is a truth we need to remember always. And that is a challenge. There is always the temptation to believe that somehow we are going to be happier if we think only about ourselves, if we can accumulate wealth by any means possible, if we can somehow end up number one through deception or manipulation. That kind of thinking promises us happiness, but it does not deliver.
The only thing that really make us happy is when we know we can give life to another, when we can raise the burden off of the shoulders of someone who is struggling, when we can teach a child to read, or free another from ignorance or depression. That’s why Christ commanded that we do all of those things. Not to make our life difficult, but to make it real. Not so that we might escape some future punishment, but so that we might live our lives more deeply today.
One day each of us will come to a moment in our lives when we will know that our death is near. If we have lived our lives as best as we can according to Christ’s commandments we will be the most fortunate people, because we will not only be able to look forward to a future reward, but we will be able to look backward over a life well lived. Because in those final moments of life there is no greater satisfaction or joy than in knowing that we have given life to another, that we have forgiven our enemy, that we have born our life in witness to integrity and truth. Goodness is its own reward. Goodness is our present joy. It precedes the joy of heaven.
May 3, 2015
1 John 3:18-24; John 15:1-8
We are religious people, and so we know that we should pray. And we do. We come together in this place to give praise and thanks to God for all God has done for us. But our tradition tells us that we should pray not only to praise and thank God but also to ask God for what we want and what we need. Why should we do this? In today’s gospel Jesus says, “Ask for whatever you want, and it will be done for you.” Is that why we pray—because God will give us whatever we want? It has to be more complex than that. Go ahead, pray to God for a new Cadillac, and see how soon it arrives.
Jesus tells us to ask for what we want because it begins a conversation. And conversations have the potential to move us beyond asking. Have you ever really wanted something from someone, from your husband, from your mother, from your boss? You begin a conversation to ask for it. Of course it is possible the conversation stays on the level of asking, asserting all the whys and wherefores about this and that. But once a conversation begins, it has the potential of moving from asking to listening. We may open ourselves to listen to the other person and how they respond to your request.
And once we start listening, the conversation can go even deeper. It can move from listening to hearing. Hearing is when we appreciate the other person with whom we speak. Hearing is our willingness to take in that person’s wisdom, insight, and love. And when we really hear another person in a conversation, that opens up new possibilities and we sometimes end up asking in a different way. So asking can lead to listening, and listening can bring us to hear the other person. That is why Jesus tells us that we are to ask in prayer, because the person to whom we speak in prayer is God, and God is ultimate wisdom and insight and love. When we are able to truly hear God, then our asking becomes clearer and deeper. As today’s second reading says: God is greater than our hearts and knows everything. What value there is then in hearing what God has to say!
We ask so that we might listen and thereby hear. But it all begins with asking. So do not be afraid to ask God for what you want and need. Ask God for a job or for a successful heart operation. Ask God to help your son who has lost his way or a friend who is addicted to drugs. Ask God for patience or for courage to face your upcoming death. Ask God for all these things.
But don’t simply ask. Listen and then wait to hear. Because if you hear the person to whom you pray, you will find yourself beyond asking. Then you will have the peace and confidence that comes from encountering the God who loves you.
Son of Encouragement
April 29, 2018
The apostle Paul is one of the great saints of the Christian tradition. Some of you might remember that before Paul became a Christian, he persecuted the early church. When Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus, Paul made a 180-degree turn. Instead of persecuting the church, he now was called to proclaim its gospel. But Paul’s history of persecuting the church was not so easily erased. We see this in today’s first reading from the Book of Acts. Paul comes to Jerusalem and wants to join the Christian community there. But the Christians in Jerusalem remember his persecution and are afraid of him. They will not let him in. What good is it to be an apostle of the church, if the church does not trust you? Paul’s mission was clearly threatened by his past.
It is then that Barnabas steps in. Barnabas was a trusted member of the Jerusalem community. He stood up for Paul. The text says he “took charge” of Paul. The name Barnabas means “Son of Encouragement.” Barnabas took Paul to the apostles, explained to them his story, and encouraged them to accept him. They did, and the rest is history. But it is likely that if Barnabas had not interceded, Paul would not have become the great apostle he was meant to be.
So why did Barnabas step in to support Paul? He saw in Paul a gift, a gift of preaching, a gift of believing, a gift of serving. Barnabas believed that that gift came from God and it was meant to be shared. Now if Barnabas had been a jealous or competitive person, he would not have helped Paul. He would have been afraid that Paul’s gift would be greater than his own, that Paul’s career would outshine his own. But Barnabas was not jealous or competitive. His only concern was to see that the gifts that God had given would be effective. The gospel needed to be preached, and he knew that Paul could do it.
This experience of Barnabas leaves us with two questions: Who has been a Barnabas to us, and how can we be a Barnabas to others? Who are the people in our lives who have encouraged us in a serious way? A parent or a grandparent who told us that we were good. A teacher that convinced us we had talent. A friend or perhaps even a passing acquaintance who helped us land our first job or who introduced us to people who could get things done. The experience of Barnabas reminds us that none of us have become the people that we are simply on our own. We have grown and we have become successful because of those who have encouraged and supported us. For this we should always be thankful.
We should also ask, “How can I be a Barnabas to others?” Is there a talent we see in a child or a grandchild that is real and needs to be encouraged? Do we know of someone who is imprisoned by addiction or depression? What can we do to help set them free? Are there people at work struggling to get on their feet? Can we support their gifts and let them be recognized? Of course, to do any of these things we, like Barnabas, cannot be jealous or competitive. Our concern should be only that the gifts that God has given should not be wasted.
Today almost every Christian knows the name of Paul, but only a handful would recognize the name Barnabas. This is because the career of Paul did in fact outshine that of the “Son of Encouragement.” But I am convinced that Barnabas from his place in heaven doesn’t care about that at all. Every time a Christian reads from one of the letters of Paul, every time a Christian is inspired by Paul’s mission, Barnabas takes satisfaction in knowing that he used his influence to make Paul successful. For Barnabas it is not important that people know his name. It is only important that God’s gifts are shared and the gospel of Jesus is proclaimed.
The Small Matter of Pruning
May 2, 2021
In today’s gospel, Jesus says ‘I am the vine, and you are the branches.’ It’s a lovely image, isn’t it? It tells us that we are so close, so intimate with Jesus, that we share his very life, like a branch shares the life of the vine. But before we get too caught up in the beauty of the image, we should address the small issue of pruning. Pruning is when a part of the plant is cut off. Because we are the branches, pruning is when a part of us is cut off. Jesus is very clear that this will happen to us. His father will prune certain parts of our life away.
Pruning can happen in many ways. You might be dating a person that you love and hoping that person will be your partner for life. Then, something changes, and the relationship ends. You are crushed. A person that you loved has been cut off from you. Your son announces that he and his wife and two children are moving to Oregon, for a new job. The job may be great for the family, but it will also severely limit your access to your son and your grandchildren. The time that you wanted to spend with your family has just been pruned away. You might have always been an active person, involved in sports and physical activity. But as you grow older, your body begins to fail. The days of your cross-country running are over. Every month or so, new pains emerge that must be addressed. Many parts of your active lifestyle are being removed.
The experience of pruning is difficult. We do not want to lose parts of our lives that we love. Therefore, it is crucial that we understand what the gospel says pruning is about. We can too easily conclude that pruning happens in our life because of our failures. If I had only adjusted more, if I had only worked harder, if I only would have taken better care of myself, maybe I could have held onto some of these things that are being taken away. But the gospel is quite clear that pruning is not the result of our weakness or failures. Jesus says that his Father will prune every branch that bears fruit, so that it will bear more fruit. Pruning happens because we have been successful, because we have produced fruit, because we are faithful disciples. God prunes us, so that we might have more life.
The challenge of the gospel is to believe that the pruning of our lives is not arbitrary or a form of punishment. Rather it is a sign that God is active, preparing us for something new.
When the person we are dating leaves our life, there is an opening for a new relationship. When our son moves to Oregon, we now have more time to explore activities that we never considered before but could bring us joy. As our body fails and is unable to do the things that it was once able to do, it can be an invitation to spend our energy more on spiritual things that never grow old.
The challenge of today’s gospel is to believe that God is cutting us back, to give us more life. We rise to meet that challenge when we are willing to trust the skill of God’s pruning hands. We were fruitful in the past. We can be fruitful again—in the new and deeper way God’s pruning will allow.